Leah Weller is very busy. The 31-year-old daughter of singer-songwriter, Paul Weller, and his ex-wife, Dee?C. Lee, from The Style Council, has recently launched her solo music career – her debut album, Freedom, came out this autumn – and late last year, she became a mum for the first time, giving birth to a son, Kouzen.
During our phone interview, one morning in early October, a week ahead of the album’s release date, we’re actually joined by Kouzen for part of it – he climbs onto his mum’s knee and starts gurgling away. It seems the perfect opportunity for me to ask if he has a favourite track on the record.
“I think he likes ‘Wonder’, because it’s rhythmic,” says Weller.
Coincidentally, that’s one of my favourites, too – a big, dramatic soul tune with a ‘60s Spectoresque Wall of Sound pop feel, a soaring chorus and Bond song horn blasts, but it’s a tough call because there are so many strong songs to choose from, including the moody, ‘70s rock-flavoured ‘Unity’, with strings, organ and a blistering electric guitar solo, and the gorgeous, pastoral jazz-soul of ‘Dive In’, co-written with her dad and sounding like it could’ve come off his self-titled 1992 debut solo album.
Produced by Steve Cradock (Paul Weller, Ocean Colour Scene), who, along with Paul Weller, also plays on it, Freedom is an ambitious and strong debut – a modern-soul album, with rich arrangements, but it also soaks up plenty of other influences, including ska?/?dub, rock, country, folk and gospel.
“I didn’t really have a set thing about how I wanted it to be sonically,” says Weller, who has a powerful and impressive singing voice that can handle a wide range of styles.
“I like the fact that the album is quite varied, with different genres. That was a catalyst for me to go ahead with writing – before, I felt like I had to fit into this category or that genre, but there aren’t as many rules now. It gave me the freedom to write whatever I wanted.”
SH: You’ve been working on the record for a while – how does it feel to finally have it out there?
LW: It’s really exciting – it feels surreal, but I’m a bit nervous as well, because it’s been a long process in the making.
You recorded some of the album at your dad’s studio, Black Barn, in Surrey, and some at Steve Cradock’s place, Kundalini Studio, in Devon. How were the sessions?
We did a lot of it at Steve’s – it’s amazing. I call it ‘the magical studio’. It has really good vibes and I wrote and finished quite a few songs there.?
The arrangements on the record are?superb…
That was all Steve.
You did the demos and then handed the songs over to Steve to work on them, didn’t you? Wasn’t the first song you did together Change, which was two years ago?
Exactly. I sent it to him – I thought it was a bit rubbish, but he was like, ‘Send it, send it!’ And then he said he liked it, and then everything sort of happened from there.
‘Change’ has a gospel / spiritual feel – it’s anthemic…
It’s funny that you said that because I actually wanted a gospel choir on it, but we didn’t have the funds at the time.
Get them on the next album, when you have a bigger budget…
How was Steve to work with?
He’s got an amazing energy – he inspires you to do stuff. It was lovely.?
Didn’t you start work on the record during lockdown, doing it remotely?
Yes. It’s much better to do stuff when you’re together in the studio, but there were a few things that I’d send to Steve, and he would just work on them by himself. It was really fun to finally get into the studio and record some stuff and be around that good energy.?
Your dad plays on the record, too – he guests on guitars, bass and Fender Rhodes piano…
I was there in the studio when my dad played on the tracks. Steve plays most of the other instruments, but there are some other people on it too, like [trumpeter] Steve Trigg from Stone Foundation.?
Steve [Cradock] got some amazing musicians involved – unfortunately they all had to do their parts remotely. I would’ve loved to have seen them up close.
You co-wrote the song ‘Dive In’ with your dad. It’s about you becoming a mum, isn’t it?
My dad came up with the music and he said, ‘What do you think of the track?’ I said I really liked it. The day that we went to put something down was the day that I told him I was pregnant – it was a really nice moment, and that song is about how I was feeling at the time.
It has a lovely retro jazz-soul feel, like some of the stuff that your dad did on his first solo album. It has a great guitar solo on it, and some nice brass and piano…
My dad played pretty much all of the instruments on it. I think it was the last track to be finished – it’s one of my favourites.?
How long have you been writing songs for?
I wrote my first song when I was 13, but I started writing seriously back in 2019. I properly focused on it.?
You had a career as a model before you became a musician. Had you always harboured an ambition to be a singer or a songwriter?
One hundred percent. I think that’s what I’ve always wanted to do, but I got a bit side-tracked because I was shy and nervous of singing.?
There must’ve been a lot of music in your house when you were growing up. Did your mum and dad encourage you to take it up?
Not particularly – it wasn’t like, ‘You have to do music’… They said I could do whatever I wanted to do – I never really talked about it with them, to be honest, and they didn’t hear me sing until I was a bit older. They came to a school play and were like, ‘Oh – you’re singing…’ They then thought I should try and pursue it, but they were never pushy.?
How do you write songs??
I’m terrible at piano and guitar, but I come up with some chords that I like the sound of, and then I write the melody and the lyrics.?
There’s a track called ‘Call Me By Your Name’, which I co-wrote with Paul Barry – the chorus, the melody and the lyrics just came to me, and Paul fitted the music around it.
I love the strings and the brass on the title track, ‘Freedom’, and there’s also a French spoken word part, which appears unexpectedly…
Yes, there’s French and there’s also Japanese – that’s my husband speaking. I wanted him to do something on it – it’s pretty cool. We just thought it was a moment – the words are saying ‘freedom’ but in different languages.?
I wrote that song in lockdown – at that time, I was more in touch with my inner-self, and I thought it would be a good track for when – and if – we got out of lockdown. It’s more about freedom from the inner prison of your mind – that was the idea behind it.
You deal with some personal issues on the album, but it feels like quite a positive, upbeat and optimistic record…
Definitely – I think that was the place I was in. Even the tracks that are heavier, like ‘Reason’, still have a hopeful message in them.?
‘Reason’ is your Adele moment – a big, dramatic piano ballad. You sound like you’re going full ‘Skyfall…’
[Laughs]: Thank you. That’s another track that I wrote with Paul Barry – we did that back in 2019. It’s a personal song about when I was going through a darker time.?
‘Wonder’ has a classic ‘60s pop-soul feel. It’s also very dramatic and, lyrically, it deals with anxiety and self-doubt…
Thanks. I think a lot of us have experienced that. I wanted a poppy track but with a meaning about what we all go through. It’s definitely about anxiety and self-doubt – when you think, ‘What have I just said?’
‘Wonder’ also reminds me of the song ‘Shades of Blue’, which you co-wrote with your dad and was on his last studio album, Fat Pop (Volume?1). That track has an orchestral, ‘60s pop-soul influence too…
Yeah – it wasn’t intentional. That music was all my dad’s, I can’t take any credit for it! I just helped write the lyrics and the melody.?
‘Pale Blue Sky’ is folky and has a country feel, with slide guitar. It’s a song about taking in what’s around you and making the most of the moment, isn’t it?
Yeah – it’s a bit of a love song to my partner as well, and about that summer feeling when everything’s just good. I was listening to a country artist called Kacey Musgraves – I really got into her. I love country music. She inspired me and it was summer at the time…
There’s another summer-themed track on the record – ‘Summer At Last’, which is a big pop moment. If you play festivals next summer, that’s the song that everyone’s going to go crazy to, with their hands in the?air…
Ahhh [laughs]. I can’t wait to play that live with a brass section.
I wrote that song when I was down in Devon. We were finishing some other tracks and I had this idea. I didn’t really know where to go with it, but then Steve worked his magic, and it became one of my favourite tracks on the album.?
The album has quite a summery feel, but it’s coming out in the autumn…
Yeah – that’s strange. Most of the songs were written in the spring/summer. I think the seasons can really affect what kind of songs you write.?
‘Strength’ is dubby – it has a groove…
That was Steve’s influence – it’s got that cool ska feel.?
‘Unity’ is very moody, with strings and organ, and an epic guitar solo, with a ‘70s rock feel. Who’s that on guitar? It sounds incredible…
That’s the legendary Steve Cradock. I wanted it to sound like ‘Maggot Brain’ [Funkadelic] – I said to Steve: ‘Think ‘Maggot Brain’ of rock ‘n’ roll’.
You rock it up again on ‘Something Sacred,’ which reminds me of Alanis Morissette…?
That’s the rockiest song on the album – I was thinking ‘Marilyn Manson guitars.’ I have quite an eclectic taste in music – I’ve recently started getting into heavy rock again. My husband played Deftones in the car and I was like, ‘I really like this band…’
‘Something Sacred,’ has an attitude, but also a vulnerability. You sing: ‘Don’t need no one to say they’re proud of me, ‘cos I’m not looking for your sanctuary’, but then you add: ‘I’m not afraid to say when I’m not OK – I’m finding my way…’
Yeah – it’s a mix: you do care, but you’re not going to wait for someone else to validate you.?
Do you feel that there are a lot of expectations on you because of who you are? Is having famous parents a help or a hindrance?
I don’t look at it like that – there are challenges to everything.
There’s a misconception that’s it’s easier for you if you’ve got famous parents, but I personally haven’t found that. It’s hard for everyone – I just keep going and don’t really think about the other side of it.?
How is it juggling your new music career with a new baby?
It’s mad. I’m not going to lie to you, it’s challenging. I don’t have any time to breathe. He’s at a really fun age – I’m loving it and you can definitely do both. Sometimes it’s perceived that once you become a mum you can’t really do anything else, which is a bull**** idea.?
What’s more fun – making records or being a model?
Definitely making records. And being a mum is the best job in the whole world.
Freedom by Leah Weller is out now on Modern Sky UK.